Investigating Disappeared Individuals

Several factors can influence the process of investigating disappeared individuals. Some are general (like the necessity of a unified list of names reported as victims) while others depend on specific contexts.


Depending on the situation, authorities may use social media, internet searches and private investigators. PIs can be useful because they will continue to work on the case when police might stop.

Gathering Information

The collection of information about missing persons (including their fate and whereabouts) is a crucial step in the investigation process. The context of a disappearance will influence the approach taken, and it is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated and not duplicative. This helps to avoid the risk of revictimizing families if they are contacted multiple times with requests for the same information.

Law enforcement agencies usually collect and examine any physical evidence they can find. They may also conduct interviews with witnesses and family members. In addition, they may issue public appeals and engage in community search efforts.

Family members often have unique and valuable information about a missing person. They can provide details about the person’s last known location, contact information and possible motives for disappearance. In addition, they can help police investigate any suspicious activities that could have occurred in the area where the person disappeared.

Families of missing people should document the details of their relationship with the person they are searching for and be aware that there can be significant financial strain from the process. This can include the cost of hiring private investigators and taking time off work. It is also important to advocate for stronger policies and legal frameworks addressing missing persons. You can do this by contacting your local and national representatives and asking them to prioritize this issue.

Physical Searches

Often, in cases of disappearances involving missing children or adolescents, it is not possible to establish whether the person is alive or dead at the moment they go missing. However, the overarching concept of “Search” encompasses all steps leading to the clarification of the fate and, in case of death, whereabouts of the individual (see below).

Depending on the context, search efforts may include: examining personal belongings; collecting surveillance footage; analysing credit card transactions; locating family members and friends who have not been in touch with the disappeared person; interviewing witnesses; mapping sites – including mass graves and other types of disposal – for identification; and reconstructing networks – including social media and cyber communication tools – for the purpose of expanding comparison criteria, hypotheses, etc.

In addition to these activities, searches are also carried out in the vicinity of the disappearance by means of public appeals and community search efforts. This stage is particularly important when the disappearance has occurred in a community, such as in conflict zones or in post-conflict situations. It is important that individuals who have gone missing are listed in unified lists by all institutions involved in the investigation – law enforcement agencies, NGOs and organizations of relatives – so that it is easy to trace their status and location. Ultimately, the aim of these lists is to identify all victims and ensure that they are properly recovered from the sites where they are located for subsequent forensic intervention.

Electronic Searches

The identification of a missing person (living or dead) is the core objective of an effective Search process. However, it is important to note that the common perception of a “search” mainly as a body centred forensic response needs to be corrected and broadened, as there are many scenarios in which it may not be possible to reach a positive identification based on a physical examination of a corpse.

The first step is the elaboration of a list of unidentified persons, which is unified and centralized in all the institutions involved in the investigation. This should be constantly reassessed and updated during the analysis process in order to limit mistakes.

In this step it is also essential to gather information on the status and mobility of each missing individual, as well as the interactions they had with other people. This allows the formulation of lines of investigation, expansion of comparison criteria and development of hypotheses, among other things.

In addition, a search should take into account the wish of those contacted in relation to being contacted and/or their willingness to actively participate in the search activities (which might involve risks to their security) and respect these wishes. This is especially important if they are displaced and/or live in hostile environments or have been forcibly removed from their homes.


A key challenge is the quality of information gathered from relatives, which can be influenced by political motivations and other factors. The information must be consolidated, recorded and analyzed (preferably centralized) in order to prioritize search activities. This will help address the identification process and the location of human remains (in case of death).

The context of the disappearance will determine how much forensic investigation is required. For example, remains found in a house where the person lived will require less lines of investigation than commingled remains recovered from a mass grave or public space. Regardless of the specific situation, it is important to avoid the assumption that all missing persons are dead.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to request help from a private investigator or a specialized agency, such as the International Organization for Migration. These organizations can provide data, promote policy development and offer direct assistance to families of disappeared people.

In addition, the vigilance of local communities is critical to finding a disappeared person, especially those who are considered vulnerable, such as children, elderly people and individuals with health conditions. People who go missing because they are fleeing from an abusive relationship can often be traced through financial transactions, like ATM withdrawals or bill payments. These details can then be used by police to find their locations and safety.